Cognitive Bias in Arbitration: Fundamental Attribution Error

People tend to process information through some of the same filters over and over again. We call these filters “cognitive biases.” They are hardwired into our brains.

One of these biases is called “fundamental attribution error.” When something good happens, we tend to overestimate the role of our own effort and intention. For instance, a store manager might say, “The changes I made helped us make more money last year,” even though it happened at the time the whole industry was expanding. On the other hand, when something bad happens, we are tempted to assign blame.  For instance, “I know his job was cut when the company was downsizing, but if he had put more effort in, they would have kept him and let someone else go.” In other words, even though people may think they root for the underdog, they actually have a tendency to congratulate themselves and blame the alleged victim.

Judges gavel on a pile of law booksIn a contested matter, the complainant has been unhappy enough with the outcome of a situation to makea claim.  At some level, the arbitrator must be careful not to have a bias toward blaming the alleged victim or respond to his bias by overcompensating in favor of the alleged victim.  Similarly, he must be careful not to have a bias toward crediting success solely to the effort and general superiority of the party claiming success (although he may need to acknowledge that success in weighing the evidence). He must be conscious of how he is responding at a subconscious level.

The advocate in arbitration can use cognitive biases in her favor by how she spins the story she tells.  For instance, defendant’s counsel can present evidence of the many ways the plaintiff failed to take action to prevent or ameliorate the harm. While the advocate runs the risk of alienating an arbitrator by reiterating evidence too much, she should certainly try to reinforce the arbitrator’s subtle predilection toward assuming fault (and even character flaw).  Likewise, plaintiff’s advocate should consider ways to weaken the other side’s subtle claims of moral superiority. Counsel should plant the seeds of the dark side of a successful defendant’s story, as if defendant were a baseball player who was viewed as a hero because of his prowess on the field until the public learned about his secret steroid use.

While fundamental attribution error comes up more often as an obstacle to mediated resolution, the attentive advocate can also use it to help be persuasive in arbitration.